Joseph Sobran

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's defenders, whenever there are reservations about his character, can always be rallied around the idea that his enemies are "right-wing." This incantation has a magical power to convince them that Clinton's sins and crimes are too trivial to prosecute, as if Abe Lincoln were being distracted by a nuisance suit in the middle of the Civil War.

The Clinton troops never explain why the "right wing" is bad. They never even define what it is. It's merely a devil-term. In the minds of liberals, anything from a libertarian (who favors severely limited government) to a fascist (who favors total government, though not the kind liberals favor) is "right-wing."

You might think that the right wing, whatever it may be, would be in some measure vindicated by events in its early assessment of Clinton as a cynical and mendacious man. But in the minds of liberals, truth itself is discredited if uttered by the right wing. The right wing is all the more dangerous when it's proven correct!

A standard liberal witticism is to say that a given conservative, especially a Christian, is "to the right of Attila the Hun." We're never told what was "right-wing" about Attila. He was a formidable enemy of Christendom and not particularly devoted to limited constitutional government.

It's somewhat easier to imagine the marauding Attila assisting Joseph Stalin, or even serving in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, than arguing against the encroachments and usurpations of the federal government. Nor was he likely to have had delicate scruples about abortion, even in the last hours of pregnancy. His alternative lifestyle included mass murder, mass rape, mass torture of hostages, and he was barely deterred from sacking Rome by a bold visit from a right-wing pope, Leo the Great, who risked his life to plead to Attila in his tent.

If words mean anything, any civilized person is "to the right of Attila the Hun." But the phrase is meant to imply that savagery is on the right, while humanity is to be found on the left, a view that flatters liberals but is somewhat at odds with the history of the 20th century.

This is no doubt why liberals are coy about admitting that they are "left-wing." The left-leaning news media insist that they are ideologically neutral, but they constantly identify conservatives invidiously as "right-wing," while they seldom refer to liberals as "left-wing." It's this sort of loaded language and verbal camouflage that makes conservatives so suspicious of media claims to impartial reporting. 

All of which raises an obvious question. Should our conventional labels be abandoned? Are they nothing more than partisan cusswords? Or is there a way of using the terms "right" and "left" that makes sense in American politics, identifying two broad sides without insulting either?

Throughout American history, the country has been polarized by two opposite tendencies. One, usually prevalent, has been the tendency to centralize power, to increase the powers of the federal government against state and local government, and to amend and construe the Constitution in ways that favor federal power. On this side we may place (somewhat arbitrarily) Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Earl Warren, William Brennan, Lyndon Johnson, the Clintons and nearly all recent liberals. This side may be fairly called "the left."

The other side has resisted the growth of federal power and has favored a "strict" construction of the Constitution. Most presidents before Lincoln were on this side, notably Jefferson; so were John Calhoun, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, and most recent conservatives and libertarians. This side may be fairly called "the right."

We can debate which tradition has the balance of truth, justice and wisdom. We can argue that neither tradition has a monopoly of political virtue, that both have something to say, that opposing principles may have more or less pertinence at different times.

That's the point. We should be discussing principles, not making wholesale accusations with tendentious nicknames. Rational discussion is impossible if "left" and "right" are reduced to synonyms for good and evil. The essence of civility is the acknowledgment that even your enemy may have something to teach you.


October 22, 1998